Features, Film, Interview

INTERVIEW: Tran Anh Hung on the Food of ‘THE TASTE OF THINGS’

"You really need a very good cook who can interpret this, and then find a way to make it right, and have the right taste for the dish."


One of the great joys of international cinema is the chance to vicariously enjoy the cuisines of other cultures. Arthouse staples like Babette’s Feast, Tampopo, and Like Water for Chocolate are often described as “food porn,” a term which, while perhaps glib as a descriptor for these beautiful and quite disparate works of art, does accurately convey their undeniably sensual pleasures. And, after all, food has long served as an onscreen stand-in for carnal desire, from the Code-era double entendres of Hitchcock to the famous chicken scene in Tom Jones. When beautiful food is given the full movie-star treatment, it’s hard to keep one’s mouth from watering.

If we are to take this cheeky descriptor as a genre unto itself, it has found a new masterpiece in The Taste of Things, the gorgeous new film from the Oscar-nominated Vietnamese-French director Tran Anh Hung. Set in the 19th century, the film concerns Dodin (Benoît Magimel), a gourmand described as “the Napoleon of the Culinary Arts,” and his deep personal and professional relationship with his chef, Eugénie (Juliette Binoche). What sets the film apart, however, are its cooking scenes: intricately detailed and as sumptuously shot as any love scene, the scenes in which Eugénie and Dodin prepare their meals are quite simply some of the most beautiful images of food ever committed to film. On the eve of The Taste of Things’ Valentine’s Day opening at the Coolidge Corner Theatre, I spoke to Hung about the challenges of filming actual food preparation, the rituals of both cooking and eating, and the real-life fate of his characters’ culinary masterpieces.

BOSTON HASSLE: What drew you to this project? How did this come about?

TRAN ANH HUNG: I think that it comes from the fact that I always wanted to make a movie about an art. I chose cuisine, because it’s something that I can really show on the screen in real [time]. We can show the characters cooking for real on the screen. That was something that was appealing for me.

BH: The way you shoot the cooking I thought was really interesting. it occurred to me that that’s kind of a separate art– you have to shoot that differently than you would shoot anything else. How did you approach filming the cooking scenes?

TAH: It was quite difficult, because I like long shots. For instance, for the first cooking scene at the beginning of the movie, I divided it into three long shots that I shot in three days. It was quite complex, because the idea is that I’m showing a dish at [one] moment of the cooking, and then in the same camera movement, when I go to the next dish, it needs to be at the right moment of the cooking of this other dish. So that was something that was quite tricky and complex to shoot. And also, because I wanted to give a feeling of harmony to the audience, I had to create a kind of ballet in the kitchen with the characters moving around. Combined with complex camera movements, that was something that was really complicated to achieve.

BH: What was the rehearsal process like, especially with Juliette and Benoît? Did they have to learn how to cook all these dishes themselves?

TAH: Oh, yes, they cook in real life. I wanted to have them [go through] at least one week of training, but they were so busy that they could only give me half a day. But it was enough, because they cook in real life. And on the set, we had a longtime collaborator of Pierre Gagnaire, the chef who served as [culinary] advisor for the movie, to keep the right spirit that Pierre wanted for the cooking in the movie, and also to be a coach for the actors. They’d always ask him to stand next to them during the takes, and he would direct them– “Go faster, now stop, move to the next step,” et cetera. It was really helpful for the actors. And of course, for something that is a little bit specific that they have to do with their hands, he would show them before shooting the scene.

BH: In addition to the actual cooking itself, I was fascinated by the culture around the food that is displayed in the movie. Was that something that you were already familiar with? Or did you have to research that and immerse yourself in that world?

TAH: Of course, I had to read a lot and talk with people who are historians to get a right sense of all this, to learn about everything– the spirit of that period, how things were done, what was the state of knowledge about all this at that time. For instance, I learned that at that time, all the recipes were not precise. You don’t have a description of the quantity of things that you have to put in the recipe, so the recipe looks like a long piece of poetry. So you really need a very good cook who can interpret this, and then find a way to make it right, and have the right taste for the dish.

BH: I also loved how the characters use the food to express themselves– when they want to say something, they cook a certain dish. How did you choose which specific dishes were used for which scenes to convey which emotions?

TAH: It’s quite instinctive. For instance, when Dodin cooks for Eugénie, it was normal that we thought about oysters, and also caviar. It has something that is very sensual– it’s wet, you know. That kind of feeling was the guide [for] our choices. And also, I chose the dishes based on how it would look on the screen. If the dish gave a sense of sophistication while we cooked it, it was interesting to show it to the audience. For instance, when he cooks the chicken for her, we see that he has to cook the broth out of two chickens, to have the broth to be able to cook the chicken that she will eat. So it’s quite sophisticated.

BH: One of the most fascinating scenes to me was the scene where Dodin and his friends are eating that dish, and they all put the napkins over their heads. What was the story behind that?

TAH: Oh, it’s a tradition in the southwest of France. They used to eat this bird, the ortolan, and they used the napkin because, when the bird is served on the dish, it’s very hot. So they have [to use] the napkin to keep the smell inside, so it doesn’t escape, so they can fully appreciate it. And then they have to hide themselves because they need to estimate the heat so they won’t burn themselves when they put the whole bird in their mouth, so they have to estimate the temperature by putting the bird on their cheek a little bit. When the temperature is right, they put the whole bird [in their mouth] and they chew it. Sometimes the fat or something would come out of their mouth, so they have to hide it because it’s quite ugly! [laughs] Of course, I shot what was under the napkin, but I decided not to show it because it was more funny and mysterious to show them from the outside.

BH: One last question, just out of total curiosity on my part: who got to eat all of this amazing food that got cooked on camera?

TAH: Oh yes! Because I wanted everything to be real, so I didn’t use a food stylist who would use some product that is not edible just to make things more beautiful or something like that. I wanted everything real. So at the end of the day, the crew would take home some doggie bags for their dinner! [laughs] Because we had to eat everything that we cooked for the scenes.

The Taste of Things
dir. Tran Anh Hung
145 min.

Now playing @ Coolidge Corner Theatre

Tags: , ,

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License(unless otherwise indicated) © 2019